England beat Tonga 20-18 in a controversial Rugby League World Cup 2017 semi-final match held in Auckland, New Zealand on Nov. 25. Tongans expressed anger as they claimed referee Matt Cecchin ignored double-checking video footage to see if Andrew Fifita, a member of the Tonga team, had made a knock on in the last second of the game, which was the key to determine which team actually won.
Kepueli Mahina Huhane, a senior from Tonga majoring in graphic design, said, “There is a video that he [the referee] can go back to but he didn’t. That caused a big controversy. In the semi-final, which is something that you have to be sure about, he just said game over. Personally, I think he might be biased.”
On TVNZ 1’s Breakfast Show, sportswriter and broadcaster Phil Gifford claimed Cecchin’s decision to not double-check was due to an “unconscious racist element.” He said Cecchin would’ve checked the video of England were playing against his home country Australia.
Huhane added, “If you would go off of logic, why would you disregard the video? This is an important game. Even if it is not Tonga, something a referee needs to do is to double-check it. He scored right at the eight-minute mark. I was watching the ball hit down at eight minutes, that’s when the time was over.”
According to Fox Sports, over 60,000 signatures have been gathered on an online petition to have Cecchin’s decision investigated. Fans marched in the streets of Auckland to both protest the call and celebrate their team.
Joshua Coker, a freshman from Tonga majoring in information technology, also said he thought the referee didn’t make a fair call. “For what I saw it is not a knock-on [An error made by the player in possession of the ball in rugby league football]. I didn’t understand why the referee did not go through the TV and make the decision afterwards. We got robbed.”
Huhane explained, “The Mate Ma’a Tonga team had not made it to quarter-finals and semi-finals before, so the fact that they got this far has made a lot of Tongans proud. There were a lot of high hopes from the people that maybe Tonga could get into the final.”
Following the game, Huhane posted on his Instagram: “This wasn’t just a tournament for me, and if I can be so brave and venture and say for all Tongans. The team became a symbol of hope, an awakening to individual and collective identity, but perhaps more importantly, they made us forget our differences and united us with a belief that the love of God and country transcends money, fame, and glory.
“They made me believe in heroes, not Superman or Captain America, but in ordinary men with whom we share a common ancestry. They made me believe blood does not always define family, but the willingness to bleed for the next guy next to you. They helped me believe we live by choice and not by chance. Thank you Mate Ma’a Tonga for helping us believe.”
Peni Ueti Kioa, a junior from Tonga majoring in biology, explained rugby for Tongans is “something growing up with you” that “is kind of in your gene.”
However, Kioa expressed being upset on how some Tongans reacted to the Cecchin. “There was lots of negativity circulating among the Tongans. They were really mad that they attacked the referees personally and even cried for blood. They said stupid stuff like they were going to burn his house down and even kill him. People’s negative posts were disrespecting the team’s effort. The team didn’t want to protest. They were already home and having a national holiday in Tonga.
“Regardless of whether the referee is wrong or not, it doesn’t mean people can attack him. I felt like rather than complaining about spilled milk, let’s honor the team instead.”
According to Stan Mesui, a sophomore from Tonga majoring in computer science, “On Nov. 29, there is now a national holiday honoring Mate Ma’a Tonga team, celebrating their historic achievement at the Rugby League World Cup.” He said the holiday started this year.
Mesui said, “We were so surprised and happy to celebrate this first time event. I think this is a great way to celebrate and honor those rugby players who sacrificed their time to represent our small country and make us all proud.”
Kepueli said, “That is not just the history of Tonga but also for the Pacific. Samoa and Fiji also have not been to the final. If Tonga could do it, it would not just represent the red and white but also the whole Pacific. I can see that. After the night show in PCC was over, which is my job, the game still had 10 minutes left. We thought we were going to lose. Within the ten minutes, they kept scoring. I saw Samoan, Fiji, and New Zealand cheering for Tonga, [and saying] ‘Man! Do it for the Pacific!’
He continued, “I actually was really sad that the team lost. However, I felt like I should say something positive. It was more than just a game; it was a great symbol of unity for the Pacific. We can do it if we just do it together. The supporters and fans were so excited to see the king not wearing his traditional outfit, but a rugby shirt. That never happened [before].
He said Dinah Jane Hansen, from Fifth Harmony, came and sang the Tongan national anthem and said there were 30,000 Tongans in the stadium.